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Games Countries Play

Clarity Trumps Ambiguity

May 21, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 34 • By JAMES D. MILLER
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IN OUR EPIC GAME WITH CHINA, the United States has just changed strategies. Our commitment to Taiwan's defense used to be based on strategic ambiguity. Recently, however, President Bush announced that the United States will do whatever it takes to defend Taiwan.

An analysis of the game we play with China shows the wisdom of clear commitment and the folly of combining ambiguity with deterrence. Consider a simplified three-round version of this game:

ROUND ONE: The United States announces what it will do if China attacks Taiwan.
ROUND TWO: China either attacks Taiwan or does nothing.
ROUND THREE: If China attacks, the United States either defends Taiwan or does nothing.

It would be extraordinarily stupid of the United States to announce a weak level of commitment to Taiwan in round one, but then come through with a strong response in round three, since this round-one behavior would encourage China to subjugate Taiwan. It would make war likely. This strategy would be the equivalent of telling your child that there is a fair chance you won't punish her if she breaks curfew while secretly planning on grounding her for life if she does. Unless you welcome conflict with your daughter, you should unambiguously state the punishments she would receive for rule violations.

If the United States actually is prepared to defend Taiwan in round three, then the best way to avoid war is to tell this to the Chinese in round one. Of course, an unambiguous American promise to defend Taiwan might hurt the feelings of China's Communist elite. Couldn't we deter China by merely hinting that we would probably come to Taiwan's aid if its de facto sovereignty were threatened?

Consider an analogous game. Pretend a mugger knows that I am either macho or wimpy. If I am macho and get mugged, then I will fight back, while if I'm wimpy and get mugged, I will submit. To deter the mugger, I should obviously act macho. What makes things interesting is that the mugger should realize this. He should know that if I were really macho, I would benefit by broadcasting it. It would be silly of me to act less macho than I really am. Thus, if I behave ambiguously, a rational mugger should conclude that I'm a wimp. In this and many other games, it is therefore impossible to signal ambiguity, for ambiguity signals weakness.

Before attacking me, a smart mugger will test whether I am macho or wimpy. He might harass me to see how I act. If I respond meekly, he will know I am safe to rob. The United States should deduce that China is continually evaluating our actions looking for signs of strength or wimpiness.

China probably judges our commitment to the defense of Taiwan the way a beautiful woman judges a man after a date. Men desperately try to impress beautiful women on first dates. Men pretend to be far nicer than they really are. Unfortunately for men, women take this into account and assume, for example, that men are not as kind as they initially appear. On a first date, therefore, for a man to convince a beautiful woman that he has at least average virtues, he must behave like a saint.

China knows that we have a massive incentive to try to deter it from attacking Taiwan. China's leaders should even realize that it would be in our interest to lie and exaggerate our strategic commitment to Taiwan. They should therefore take any level of commitment we announce as the upper limit to our willingness to defend Taiwan.

Thus, to convince China that we are even moderately serious about protecting Taiwan, we must make a definitive, not an ambiguous, public commitment. If we wouldn't mind Taiwan's falling under Chinese control, then there is nothing wrong with an American policy of strategic ambiguity. Those who wish to see Taiwan free, however, should not imagine that a policy of strategic ambiguity is a cheap way for America to deter China.

The games we play with China are like the traffic games cars play. Drivers rely on very clear rules at traffic lights. It would be disastrous if these rules were made ambiguous. Even two drivers who desperately wanted to avoid a collision would still crash if both thought they had the right of way. Similarly, mixed signals from Washington about Taiwan could lead to an accidental war, with the Chinese believing that if they invaded, we would concede the right of way.

James D. Miller is an assistant professor of economics at Smith College.

May 21, 2001; Volume 6, Number 34